The Serbia-Russia Alliance, Belgrade’s Multi-faceted Diplomacy and the Improbable European Perspective

The European Union’s acceptance of Kiev’s candidacy, an adequate but insufficient decision to ensure Ukraine’s defense, has repercussions in the Western Balkans.

Meeting on the eve of the European Council of June 23 and 24, the EU-Western Balkans summit did not result in any strong decision. This lack of a clear perspective benefits Russia and China, and even Turkey. We should move forward. However, the case of Serbia, which is closely linked to Russia, raises many reservations.

Historically, culturally and religiously close to the Slavic Orthodox states of the Balkan Peninsula, Russia has a close relationship with Serbia. During the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Russian governments and political forces recalled this geopolitical solidarity, their support for Belgrade eventually provoking a serious crisis in their relations with the West during the Kosovo war (1999). It was the lack of real cooperation with Russia, in order to bring the Serbian president of the time, Slobodan Milosevic, to resignation that made Western leaders doubt the project of a Euro-Atlantic Community that would extend from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Having understood that Russia would not be a “stakeholder”, i.e. a bona fide partner in the international system, they accepted the idea of a NATO expanded to include Central and Eastern Europe.

When Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, Russia refused to recognize the sovereignty of this former province of Serbia. It remains in this position. In 2013, Moscow and Belgrade signed a “strategic partnership” that includes military cooperation and intelligence sharing. Serbia then obtained observer status in the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). Finally, Russian energy companies are very active in Serbia as in “Republika Srpska” (Bosnian Serb entity). Gazprom and Lukoil are at the forefront of Russian investments in Serbia (oil companies and distribution companies). In 2008, the sale of NIS (Naftna Industrija Srbij) to Gazprom was done by mutual agreement, at a price that some experts estimate to be four times lower than the real value of the Serbian company.

Russia now largely dominates this sector, including in the area of infrastructure (oil and gas pipelines, refineries). The South Stream project placed Serbia in a central position in the Russian gas pipeline network in Europe, and its abandonment ruined Belgrade’s expectations. Then Serbian hopes were invested in the extension of Turkish Stream to European markets. In this respect, Serbia was the competitor of Bulgaria, which was also interested. The construction of a Balkan Stream has since been decided, this pipeline uniting the interests of Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey, also a stakeholder (Balkan Stream was inaugurated in January 2021).

With regard to geopolitical representations of the “Slavic-Orthodox” type, which go hand in hand with a denunciation of Turkish Islamo-nationalism, it is also worth highlighting the close relationship between Ankara and Belgrade. Counter-intuitively, Turkey has made Serbia one of its main diplomatic and economic partners in the Balkans. In the 1990s, during the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, the Slavic-Orthodox nationalism of Serbian fighters pointed to Muslim Turkey and the “green diagonal” that the latter wanted to deploy across the Balkans, in territories formerly dominated by the Ottomans. More recently, one remembers Recep T. Erdogan’s provocative remarks in October 2013 during an official visit to Pristina: “Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey.”

Far-right protesters trample the European flag in Belgrade on March 5. // Screenshot

In the years that followed, the Turkish president and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, developed a strong personal relationship, underpinned by close business ties between the two countries. Over the decade 2010-2020, trade has increased fivefold and hundreds of Turkish companies have a presence in Serbia. This trade volume represents one third of the trade between Turkey and the entire Balkan area. During an official visit by Erdogan to Serbia in October 2019, an agreement was reached on the development of trade relations between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, prefiguring a free trade zone that would associate the three countries.

Turkish investments are particularly present in infrastructure, such as the Belgrade-Sarajevo highway. Another project, a highway in the Morava Valley, involves the Turkish company Enka and the American company Bechtel. This north-south freeway will link Serbia to the borders of Hungary and northern Macedonia, while integration into the southeast European network will facilitate access to Austria, Greece, Italy and Romania. Finally, it is important to remember the Balkan Stream, an extension of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline (see above). Together with Russia, Turkey is therefore a player in the gas supply to Serbia. By means of such a project, it manages both to develop its own relations with Russia and to position itself as a competitor to the European Union and its neighbourhood policy in the Western Balkans.

Lastly, it is not possible to ignore Belgrade’s relations with Beijing, and this when the People’s Republic of China is now considered a “challenge” (the term falls short of reality), both in the European Union and in NATO. In accordance with an agreement signed in 2019, Serbian forces received three Chinese-designed FK-3 air defense systems last spring, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and tensions in the Balkans. The transit over Turkey and Bulgaria of the planes that delivered these weapons demonstrated the capacity of the Chinese air force to project itself far from its borders (specialists speak of “global reach”), this air deployment in Europe constituting a worrying geostrategic novelty.

It would be wrong to see in this Serbian diplomacy the simple expression of business ties or a windfall effect, in reaction to the stalemate in accession negotiations with the European Union. Serbian geopolitical discourse is in direct opposition to the West, with NATO as the diabolical cause, and it uses the language elements in force in Moscow and Beijing: the theme of multipolarity (an anti-Western polemic), that of the shift in the balance of power towards Asia, and the promotion of the BRICS. In Belgrade, the supporters of “national-communism” see Serbia as an outpost of Sino-Russian Eurasia.

At the regional level, this geopolitical discourse has concrete extensions. We know that the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a combination of a Bosnian-Croat federation and a Serbian republic, depends on the decisions of the Serbian nationalist leader, Milorad Dodik, who is being spurred on by Belgrade and Moscow. On December 10, 2021, Dodik had the Banja Luka parliament adopt resolutions that would imply an exit from Bosnian institutions. He threatens to recreate Bosnian-Serb institutions parallel to that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including an army. Such decisions could trigger a new conflict in the country, with regional repercussions.

In sum, it will not be possible to move forward with Serbia without a fundamental revision of its foreign policy, which would imply a reconsideration of the world view of the Serbian leadership. If this were not the case, integration into the European Union would amount to introducing a “Trojan horse”. So the plan to sell Rafale aircraft to Serbia leaves us doubtful. It would be “putting the cart before the horse”. Let’s remember the Mistral affair, a sale that was supposed to bind Russia to Europe!

As for the verse on the personal relations between the French president and his Serbian counterpart, likely to turn the regional geopolitical situation around, it recalls the illusions concerning the special relationship with Putin, cultivated by Emmanuel Macron and his predecessors, with one exception perhaps for François Hollande. The war in Ukraine and the denial of the obvious, in the weeks that preceded it, would they not have served as a lesson? “Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum”.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

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